Famous for its restless and often stressful urban living, sparing the time to take a walk in the park can be a luxury for many Hong Kongers. In fact, many may not even notice the existence of parks and gardens in the business district of Hong Kong. Behind the towering skyscrapers of Central (中環), a rather hidden 5.6 hectares area on the slope of Victoria Peak stands the oldest public park in Hong Kong. Long before the city was promoted as a shopping paradise, or a foodie haven of Michelin star restaurants, or a recreational hub of amusement parks and vibrant nightlife, or an exotic destination of subtropical beaches and seaside hiking trails, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens (香港植物公園) was one of the primary tourist attractions in the Victoria City. Founded in 1864 and completely opened to the public in 1871, the gardens was established in times when botanical gardens were founded by colonial powers in different locations around the world. The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was used by the British as a regional hub to study plant species collected from the Far East before transferring back to the Kew Gardens in England, or before planting at other areas in Hong Kong.
Bounded by Garden Road (花園道), Robinson Road (羅便臣道), Glenealy (己連拿利) and Upper Albert Road (上亞厘畢道) in the Mid-Levels (半山), Hong Kong Botanical Gardens is often referred to as Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) by the locals. Literally means “Head of Soldiers” Garden, “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” references to the former Governor’s House built at the Garden’s location. In 1975, the official name of the Gardens was changed to Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens (香港動植物公園), as a result to the growing collection of display animals. Despite initial researches of botanical science (which led to the founding of Hong Kong Herbarium in 1878) at the Gardens, most people would remember the Gardens as a place to check out animals and floral displays. Though the history of how the Gardens had played a role in botanic research for tree planting on the Hong Kong Island shall always be remembered. After all, transforming Hong Kong Island from a barren and rocky island with no forests, no trees and only grass in the 19th century (resulted from centuries of reckless deforestation) into the relatively lush green metropolis that we see today was no small feat.
Situated right across from my primary school, Bing Tau Fa Yuen is an essential part of my childhood memories. Going to Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) to check out the howler monkeys, orangutans, peacocks and even jaguars was a small after-school treat for me as a child. Every spring, Azalea (杜鵑花) would flourish across the park, attracting a large crowd to take selfies. Many years have gone by and the neighborhood has significantly transformed since my childhood’s time. Though the annual blossom at Bing Tau Fa Yuen is one of the few things that could remain unchanged throughout the years.
A looming sense of loss comes to my heart when writing about a Syria that no longer exists. Revisiting the brief travel experience in Syria consolidates my feelings and fragmented memories of places that we visited and faces that we encountered. It was sad to revisit the photos of Syria, knowing that much of the cultural heritage we visited have been destroyed and people we met have gone through a painful decade. Nonetheless, we thought it would be a valuable thing to share on our blog a little account of the prewar Syria, when the Middle Eastern nation was a fascinating country to visit as a backpacker, despite it was labelled by George W. Bush as part of the so called “Axis of Evil”. It was the least touristy country among the nations we visited in the region, and had a great wealth of cultural heritage and friendly people. Our Syrian story began in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the war and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
We arrived at Antakya of Hatay near the Turkish and Syrian border at 08:00. Immediately we hopped onto another bus for Aleppo in Syria. Going through the customs and passport control was easier than I thought. Once crossed the border into Syria, I felt that I had finally arrived in the authentic Middle East, a desert nation still out of reach from global commercialism. Aleppo is about 100km east of Antakya. The city was noisy, dusty, crowded, and unique. A few minutes of rest at Spring Flower Hostel was enough for us to revive our energy. We walked to the Old City towards the famous Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, the 8th century World Heritage Site that is the largest and oldest mosque in Aleppo. Before visiting the mosque, we picked up some kebabs on the way. At the gate of the mosque, we took off our shoes and entered the marble courtyard, where pilgrims and tourist agents mingled. The beautiful courtyard had two roofed ablution fountains. Beyond one side of the surrounding colonnade stood the famous minaret. Built in 1090, the minaret had been the icon of the mosque for more than 900 years. In April 2013, the news of the minaret being reduced to rubble shocked the world. Apart from the minaret, much of the mosque was also badly damaged. The most iconic religious monument of Aleppo was turned into a bloody battlefield, and now a large restoration site closed to visitors.
The 923 year old minaret was one of the most notable cultural heritage casualties from the Syrian Civil War.
The 45m minaret was cladded with pinkish beige stone and Arabic inscriptions. Now it only exists in old photographs and collective memories of Syrians.
With two ablution fountains and marble stone flooring, the beautiful courtyard was badly damaged during the war. Both the rebels and government blamed each other for the destruction.
Despite the heat, the courtyard was a lovely place to hang around for people watching. According to online news, restoration work has begun in 2017 to repair the World Heritage Site.
Inside the mosque, we found the coffin of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist.
Outside the mosque, local shoppers were busy chatting with vendors. Such bygone vibrant scenes may take a long time to recover.
The street right outside the mosque was lined up with a series of well-preserved traditional houses.
In the evening, the main street was a great place to take in the lively atmosphere.
The timber mashrabiya of houses around the mosque were quite spectacular.
The busy shops around the famous mosque may not exist anymore.
We had a brief encounter with a young cheerful vendor outside the mosque. It is sad to imagine the fate of all the Aleppo citizens we met.
According to World Vision, 5.6 million Syrians have become refugees, another 6.2 million have been displaced, and nearly 12 million need humanitarian assistance, and more than half are children.
A peaceful evening outside the Great Mosque of Aleppo has become a memorable image in my heart. A battlefield for almost ten years, Aleppo would take a long time to return to the former liveliness.
The majestic minaret of Great Umayyad Mosque fell amid heavy fighting between rebels in the mosque and the Syrian army 200m away. The destruction of the minaret was a tragedy for all.
After 1300 years as the religious centre of Aleppo, the Great Umayyad Mosque is currently closed for restoration. Whether it could return to its former glory remains to be seen.
Originally a Greek agora during Hellenistic period, and then the garden of the Christian Cathedral of Saint Helena in Roman era, the Great Umayyad Mosque was erected in the 8th century during first Islamic Dynasty. 1300 years on, no one can be certain how its story will continue to unfold.